William ‘Kel’ Nagel: We’re pretty good, but we’re not as good as we could be’

Dr. William "Kel" Nagel: "This community has never been as supportive of education as I would like it to be."

Dr. William “Kel” Nagel: “This community has never been as supportive of education as I would like it to be.”

When you first meet Dr. William Nagel, you realize immediately he’s someone you’ll never forget.

A mountain of a man, Nagle is at least 6 feet, 5 inches in height and every bit of 300 pounds. He looks more like “Hagrid The Giant” from the Harry Potter series than an pulmonologist from Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

But within that intimidating exterior is an equally memorable brain and an overwhelming gentleness. Perhaps no one in the community could ever claim to have the passion, deep-thinking abilities and ideas possessed by the northern New Jersey native.

In his 35 years as a Salisburian, Nagel has played a huge local role in the medical community and the growth of PRMC, but other doctors can also claim that. Nagel has served the community in a multitude of even more-complex ways: From March 1984 through June 1995, Nagel was a member on the county’s school board, serving as its outspoken president for 10 consecutive years. There, he gained an insider’s knowledge of local politics and deep public service. Also through the school board, Nagel was exposed to the societal occurrences and trends seen by those who work with teachers, parents and students.

Nagel has also been a key player the community’s arts scene, having taken on leadership roles in the local arts council, while also spending time in community theater, as a producer, director and stage performer.

On Friday, Nagel — who friends call “Kel” after long-ago Australian professional golfer Kelvin Nagle, even though the last names aren’t spelled the same — will retire after a 41-year medical career. The Creighton University School of Medicine graduate is one of six doctors at PRMC who specialize in Pulmonary Disease.

Q. Why are you retiring?

A. Because I’m old. I’m 66 and a half.

Q. What is it like now, having been school board president for more than a decade, watching the school system from outside?

A. Obviously I’m not as involved as I was. I’m  watching from afar. I don’t have children in the schools system, I don’t have grandchildren in the school system, so a lot of what I get is other people’s impressions.

When I talk to educators who I have know over the years, they’re discouraged.

I had one tell me the other night that when I was there, it was “Camelot.” I don’t think that’s exactly true, but I do think we had a period where we raised expectations and built some schools.

We never did get the money we needed, and we had a superintendent who came from outside and who was very innovative. Not every idea she had was great, but many of them were.

Mostly she wanted to raise standards and give every child an opportunity to be as good, as successful, as they could be.

Q. You’re referring of course to former superintendent Evelyn Holman.

A. Hiring Evelyn Holman was so out of-the-box for this area. She was completely different from anyone who had ever held that seat. She was different than the ones who succeeded her also.

She believed that education was a serious profession, that it could be backed by research, and that things could be tried and be successful. Certainly, neither she, nor I, nor a couple of the other board members thought that we were looking for excellence, or being the best we can be.

Everybody uses the word excellence. I don’t like the word excellence because by definition it’s to be better than anybody else.

Dr. Kel Nagel on retirement: "I keep telling people I’m going to sit around in my underwear and watch NCIS reruns all day long."

Dr. Kel Nagel on retirement: “I keep telling people I’m going to sit around in my underwear and watch NCIS reruns all day long.”

I didn’t want (our school system) to be better than anyone else. I always wanted us to be as good as we can be, given the talent that we’ve got and the resources that are available.

She wanted to do things like bolster gifted and talented education. She also wanted to bolster special education, some of which was either federal or state mandated , but some of it was trying to do the best we could for these kids and their parents.

So we got special ed moved from the former vocational school to a new special ed center at Pinehurst.

We did the middle schools, she got that done.

Q. She’s also remembered for the Magnet Program.

A. Yes, the Magnet Program. For better or worse, she got us the Magnet Program. At the time, that was very controversial.

My son was in second grade the year Magnet started, and I had some concerns myself. Should he go to another school (at North Salisbury) or should he stay in his neighborhood school at Pinehurst? My two daughters were at Pinehurst and they were fine, and I knew he’s do fine too in his neighborhood school.

But in (advocating) Magnet, I had to make the best decision for the whole county, and not base it on where my kids was going to go to school.

Now there are loud concerns about whether they’re contracting the Magnet Program, defunding it. Whether they are, I have no idea.

Q. Was Dr. Holman ahead of her time?

A. For this community, she was. She came from Frederick County — they were doing a lot of things there that we wanted to bring here.

Middle school — we were behind the curve on middle school. Nobody was still doing junior high schools, by the time we go to the middle school program. But it was a fight for us to even get that.

Fights … we had a lot of fights. It was a fight to get Visual and Performing Arts. We never did get the dance portion. But that’s been a great program.

The County Councils were intransigent on most things.

Q. Does the school board not work in advance enough with the council to get their buy-in?

A. We always did. We would always go downtown and meet with the council and talk about what was in the budgets and what we needed and why we thought it would be better.

And they would say “Thanks for coming down,” and they would smile and say “we’ll do everything we can for you.”

Did they do everything they could? Of, course — no.

Q. Were the disputes more about budget numbers or policies?

A. Numbers. Sometimes I don’t think they cared whether we had these programs or not, they just wanted to know what it cost.

This community has never been as supportive of education as I would like it to be.

Q. Why is that?

A. I think that there’s a lot of division. We have a whole from-here/come-here thing that’s always in the background, and I’m certainly a came-here even though I’ve been here more than half of my life at this point, but that I’m a come here and that I obviously went to school a lot.

And there are still, still, many people in this county that think a high school diploma is enough, that that’s it — that’s my terminal degree and that all I need and why should we do anything else?

The schools (they believe) have always been good enough, and perhaps in the 1940s they were good enough, but by the 1980s they weren’t good enough.

And in the 20-teens (now), well I’m concerned about what educators say.

I’m concerned when someone I know who has family that might want to return to the community, but they have questions and concerns about living here because of the schools.

We have a lot of people selecting the private school option, either a secular private school like Salisbury school, or the many Christian schools.

Q. There were epic confrontations with James Betts.

A. He wanted no money spent on schools. I had no personal relationship with him at all, other than for me to smile at him and him to scowl at me at public meetings or wherever we were together.

Q. Did the County Councils listen to him? Did he have a following?

A. There were two members of the County Council (during my time on the school board) who said things that were revealing. One said: “I don’t trust anyone who has more than a high school education.”

Another said the county should offer the absolute minimum as required by the state, and that people who wanted more should send their kids to private schools.

That was where we were and where we were going.

I never advocated huge tax increases. I advocated increasing taxes a few cents every few years, and that would have allowed us to do more at the time, would have allowed us to maintain schools better at the time.

One thing about me, and Evelyn and the people who voted with us on the board, was that we wanted to put every dollar we had into instruction. When that happens, maintenance gets cheated, and it did get cheated, I’m sure.

Nagel Main

Would we still have had to replace Bennett Middle School in 2010? Maybe not. Maybe it would have been 2015 or (20)18. I don’t know.

Yeah, we definitely cheated maintenance — it was good for instruction, though — it was good for kids.

Q. Is teaching a profession or a calling?

A. I think it’s a profession. It’s not treated like a profession in America, like it is in Japan. It doesn’t mean I think teachers should make as much as doctors either. But I think they need to make more than they do and have a lot of respect in the community.

We in this community are competing with other communities, including Worcester, which essentially has a never-ending sources of free money.

Q. Having them next door makes it difficult to compete teacher-wise?

A. Absolutely. New teachers want to go to Worcester County — they’re going to make several more thousand dollars, they’re going to have smaller classrooms, and at least in some of the schools and communities, they’re going to have parents with better aptitudes.

Q. So do we have a good school system in Wicomico County, or not?

A. We do. It’s just not as good a school system as Salisbury University is a university. It’s not as good a school system as Peninsula Regional Medical Center is a hospital.

We’re pretty good, but we’re not as good as we COULD be.

We have some outstanding teachers, some people who are really dedicated to their students, but …

Q. Is it leadership, is it money. What’s holding us back?

A. I always think it’s money. I do. I think that the start — it’s not the be-all or end-all, it’s the start. We don’t spend on education like we should.

Q. Where did your love of theater come from?

A. I’ve always loved the theater. I grew up in the New York area. Of course my parents were not theater-goers, we didn’t have money. That’s an expensive application.

I went to my first Broadway play when I was about sophomore or junior in high school, and it was a production of “Luther.” It was a great play, but it was about Martin Luther and it was certainly interesting that our Catholic school brought us over there. It was great.

I’ve been going to Broadway shows ever since.

I’m a sap for old school musicals, that’s what I love the most.

I’ve directed five shows now (for Community Players) four of them were comedies, one of the was an intense drama, “Doubt.”

Q. Community Players was always a big deal in this community …

A. Not big enough.

Q. … and I’m unsure what its status is now. Is it as important as it used to be?

A. It’s important to me. Our audience is graying. We try to do things to reach out to younger people. But the Broadway audiences are graying too.

That’s a problem with theater as an art form.

Most of our traditional audiences want the traditional shows.

Q. Talk about the changes in health care in your time here.

A. When I came to Salisbury in 1978, AIDS did not exist (as a public health problem). Lots of things have changed. But that’s just one thing. There’s been a lot to learn over the last 36 years. Amazing things.

When Dr. Ed Klopp came to town (in 1979) and he starred doing heart surgery, we had 110 consecutive cardiac bypass cases without a death. That was unheard of. we’ve had advances here in our heart surgery program, our trauma program, advances in neo-natal — lots of things.

Q. Is there a difference between PGH and PRMC?

A. More than a name change, for sure. There have been a lot of different factors driving the changes, some of it medical staff driven, including some stuff I and my partner (Dr. Rodney Layton) did for critical care, education, respiratory care, a lot of things.

This is a very, very good regional hospital.

Q. Someone had to show some leadership to make the hospital good. Who did it?

A. We were already the biggest, even before we made the leap in various programs. We already had a 300-bed hospital that did most things well, but mailed a lot of (patients) to Baltimore.

Now we don’t mail much to Baltimore.

There are some things that we don’t do here that you have to go to Hopkins or (University of) Maryland (Hospital) for, and some of the more complicate trauma goes there. But we’ve got a good trauma program.

It was mostly doctor-led, the changes. The part of it on the surgical side was led by Nevins Todd, and Dick Hughes, who started the heart surgery program. Heart surgery is a big deal. It was certainly a big deal then to have heart surgery out here in the boondocks.

To do that, you needed a strong intensive care unit. We expanded ICU, trained the nurses, trained the respiratory therapists,.

On the medical side in the mid-1970s, there was an increased focus on specialties training, we didn’t have a lot of guys here who were sub-specialists. The creation of the sub-specialty practices was crucial, so that people didn’t need to go to Baltimore or some place to see a cardiologist, or a pulmonologist, or whatever.

Everything is related to to the dedicated staff. There are a lot of good people working very hard.

When people ask me where they should have their heart surgery, if they should have it here or go to Baltimore, I tell them: “Go to Hopkins, have a resident (doctor) do it, they need the training!” Everyone has to start somewhere.

I was very, very sick myself in March 2012. There’s nothing like being in your own ICU for a week or two. Nobody in my family or friends suggested that I go someplace better.

Q. What is it like being an avowed liberal in a rather conservative community?

A. I sort of get used to having my candidates lose elections.

Basically, the people are nice about it. I have an awful lot of conservative friends, including most of the doctors.

It’s interesting. I think the community would be better served by having a more-progressive attitude in some ways. When I was on the school board, we ran that in a very moderate way. There was no liberals vs. conservatives. Of course, it was back when Democrats and Republicans were allowed to talk to each other.

So, we managed — usually. We took a consensus opinion and tried to do common sense stuff.

Why try to change someone’s mind if you’re just going to make them mad?

Q. What will you be doing in your retirement?

A. I keep telling people I’m going to sit around in my underwear and watch NCIS reruns all day long. I have three grandchildren (who live out of town). There will be lots of traveling involved.

Q. What are going to miss the most?

A. I’m going to miss working with the patients, which I happen to think I’m still really good at — though not as good as I used to be.

And I’m going to miss the people I work with. They’re all great.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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